two Artists, three worlds 两位艺术家,三个世界


I haven’t photographed many people recently. But I did photograph two most interesting characters: filmmaker Steve Andrus and photographer Charles Wild Ridge.

I stumbled into their worlds by accident and I am grateful for the glance at their worlds. A superficial glimpse, of course. But it was better than not looking.

They both taught me so much by opening windows so I saw views I might not have seen otherwise. They both unconsciously confirmed me that I made a right decision to become a photographer, which my mother always considers a mistake, a difficult path away from “a normal life.”  Again, I want to tell my mother again: my camera is a passport to a big world of discoveries.

Steve and Charles are both artists, but they live in two very different worlds. My being there and trying to capture a glimpse of their lives, understand them, and reconstruct them somehow make a third world. This fascinates me.

I met Steve via couch surfing for a visit to DC in March. It was my first time couch surfing – scary but thrilling, like Alice falling into that tree hole, not knowing what to expect.

When I told two friends that I stayed with a stranger – a big guy – for two nights, sleeping in his couch. They looked at me as if they didn’t know me. After a pause, they warned me: “Never, ever do this again!! You could be raped. And it could be worse. You could have been murdered and disembodied and disappeared and could only roam in the underworld as a wild ghost without a home (tomb).”

I looked at them and felt a cold shiver in my spine as I remembered those sensational cop shows. Yeah, I could have been a wild ghost now.

And yet, I am so glad I met Steve. He is actually one of the most intriguing characters I’ve met.

It was already dark when I arrived at Twinbrook metro station in Rockville, MD. I didn’t know what Steve looked like. Nor did he know how I looked. Strangely we didn’t even try to tell each other how to identify each other. I said I would be there in 20 minutes and he said I’d be there to meet you.

When I first saw his car, a small two-door racecar. I thought, “that might be him.” But he didn’t stop where I stood.

He might have seen me right after he arrived, but he was not sure that was me.

It was getting darker and quieter. I started to feel a little uneasy.

Finally, he drove up to me and I knew that was the stranger, a 6’5” big guy, whose couch would accommodate me for two nights.

It was such a small car for such a tall guy. And there was no trunk for my luggage. I had to get into the passenger seat, then Steve put the luggage on my laps! Always good to travel light unless you drive.

Later Steve said, “I am not driving the car. I am wearing it.”

As an artist, Steve thinks the look of his car is more important than its functions. This small car made him, a big guy, look funny, cool and different. But to me, it is his statement – “I am wearing the car” – that really shows him as an artist who tries to stay out of the box! It exposes his desire for the power over the vehicle, instead of being in it.

Steve never wears a seatbelt when driving, despite the fact that he already had several near-fatal car crashes. Wearing a seatbelt makes him feel imprisoned. What can be more important than being and feeling free for an artist? But it is more than that. Not wearing a seatbelt is also his way to rebel against the authorities. In other words, to Steve, a free spirit against authorities is more important than his life.

“I am the one who decides whether I should wear a seatbelt or not. It is my own body, my own life. I am the one who is responsible for it, not the government! No one else has the right to order me to wear a seatbelt,” Steve insisted.

However, he admitted that if he had a child, he would make his child wear a seatbelt.

I knew he was a character when I first met Steve at the metro station. But it was the moment when I stepped into his apartment that I wanted to photograph him and write about him.

His living room was filled with several Apple computers, most updated and most out-dated TV sets, game machines from the ‘80s, cameras, lighting gears, Star War souvenirs, a black mannequin…

“I am a nerd,” he said.

In his bedroom, an at-least-100-year-old, dilapidated framed wood bed with fine carvings from China sat with a PC computer and lots of camera gears.

What a combination!

What a picture!

What a character!

“I wanted to take your pictures,” I said.

So this new-tech “nerd” posed for me in front of his century-old oriental bed. He was a great model.

Later Steve showed me a movie he made all by himself with only limited self-funding. He was the screenwriter, producer, director, camera guy and editor. The movie is a comedy well thought and nicely structured, with a surprise ending. Though it is not a masterpiece yet, it shows Steve’s talent amazingly.

The next morning, as we chatted over breakfast, he entertained me with all his adventures as a young but tall kid, who escaped home and traveled half a country away. He was too smart to be a victim of the evils out there in the world, just like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. This did not surprise me at all, as you could imagine.

What surprised me was when we talked about families. So…attention, please! This rebellious, “post-modern,” new-tech “nerd,” who would try every effort to get your attention, has a desire for a “normal” or “traditional” family life! His concept of marriage and family is no different from my mother’s: A nice house, a wife you will never divorce and several beautiful kids!

This time, he dug out some stereotypes I had but not knowing I had. What right do I have to think that people like Steve wouldn’t desire a “normal” love life and a traditional family?!

Charles Wild Ridge

Charles Wild Ridge lives in a quite different world. He doesn’t have a computer, not even an out-dated one. Nor does he have a TV. He has a decades-old view camera, though.

I was driving slow along Highway 17 in Ft. Davis, TX, looking around and at the same time looking for a motel, when I saw a sign that said “Wild Ridge Photography.” I pulled over in front of the sign. Not a bad idea to appreciate other photographers’ works when the harsh noon light made it impossible for me to photograph, I thought.

As I got out of my car, Charles approached me with a strange look.

“Can I help you?’ He asked. He didn’t seem very friendly.

“Oh, I, I saw this sign and…is it open to the public?” I said hesitantly.

“Oh, yeah!” His tone changed immediately and he welcomed me into his garage-turned gallery (also his home), where his black-and-white landscapes images were displayed.

All his works were taken with a 4×5 Wista view camera, all in black and white. His style was obvious: a classic minimalist. He reminds me of Ansel Adams, but he claimed he didn’t care about Ansel Adams. This self-taught photographer was proud of his works, which were yet to be known. From his first reaction to my visit, you could guess I was one of the few people who would stop just to see his photographs.

“Most people who pulled over in front of my house are customers of the liquor store next door,” Charles told me. He was so tired and so sick of those drinkers. He thought I was one of those liquor buyers who didn’t care about art or photography.

“People would spend hundreds of dollars on liquor, but wouldn’t spend 200 on art…”he lamented. I heard both anger and sadness in his complaint and I knew there was a story there.

Charles did have a story to tell.

He had been a senior technician for a Japanese auto company, making over 100K a year before becoming a photographer. He lived a decent material life, but he felt empty. Finally, around a decade ago, he quit his job and started a nomad’s life. Meanwhile, he taught himself photography so that he escaped alcoholism, which ruined his three marriages and estranged him from his children.

Photography filled his heart, which was once soaked in liquor. He is now a fulfilled soul with a passion for art and beauty. When I told him about my fire project I had been doing, he said, “maybe I’ll join you tomorrow.”

The next day, before heading out for my morning shoot, I drove over to Charles’s gallery-house to make sure if he still wanted to join me. It was dim and quiet. I didn’t see any light from his windows. With some hesitation, I decided not to wake him up and drove on.

Before I left Ft. Davis, I went over to Charles’ house again to say goodbye. He was reading at the porch, his dog and best friend, Big Guy, lying at his feet. Seeing me, he rose from his chair slowly, trembling. There was obvious agony in his movement and facial muscles. He had suffered from severe arthritis for years, he later told me. That was why he didn’t’ join me in the morning. “Besides, the light was not that good this morning,” he said.

I reached my hand out to him. But he refused to take it. Maintaining his independence was more important than seeking help. I understood and respected his desire to remain independent. But I couldn’t help worrying about him and thinking about my own parents. I wouldn’t want my parents to suffer like this and resist help.

But Charles didn’t seem to worry too much at all. With enthusiasm, he told me his plans: he would sell his garage-turned gallery-house, buy a trailer and travel all over the country to make photography!

I asked if I could take his pictures before I left for Dallas. He agreed. I positioned him in his house by a big window, which served as a huge light box. From my viewfinder, I saw more clearly the dignity in Charles, a soul I would never forget.


近几个月来拍片不是很勤奋,也极少拍人物,但仍遇到两个有意思的角儿。一个是搞电影的Steve Andrus,另一位是退休以后自学摄影的Charles Wild Ridge。两位做艺术的人,在截然不同的两个世界生活。而我的闯入,端着相机的闯入,似乎又构建了第三个世界。

因为之前关于火灾的帖子提过Charles Wild Ridge,在此不再啰嗦,只稍微记下三月认识Steve的经过。

三月访华盛顿期间,睡在一个陌生人的沙发上——通过couch surfing网站找到的。一个弱女子冒然到陌生男人家里过夜,第一晚忐忑不安。次日开始心安,因为知道对方不是坏人,至少没有企图。后来和朋友宁和佳谈起这事,两人都诧异不已,连忙警告不可再造次,说给强奸了还没什么,最怕给谋害了,没准还死无全尸,做了鬼都漂泊。

细想想电视里的警匪片,也不免后怕。可是,第一次couch surfing没碰上坏人,还碰了一个蛮有意思的人,steve andrus。 steve自称为nerd。此君高大、粗壮。开的车却是只有两个门的敞篷小跑车,没有车尾箱。一米六的我坐进去刚好,一米九的他,虎背熊腰地猫在里头,显得很滑稽。他自己也说,我不是驾车,而是把车穿在身上。他接送我的时候,我必须把行李抱在腿上。我很庆幸自己个儿矮小、不胖,庆幸没有带大件行李,否则要花钱另外雇车。


此外,他从来不系安全带。美国全国上下都明文规定开车必须系安全带。但Steve说:“系不系安全带,只涉及到我个人的安危 ,并不会给别人的安全。我不需要政府来告诉——你要系安全带。”Steve其实出过几单车祸,虽然还没要他性命,或让他残疾,但还是比较严重的。有一次,他整个人都被抛出车外。那次受的伤,现在还有余痛。可是,Steve仍然坚持冒着生命危险反抗政府剥夺他对自己负责的自由。可是话说转来,他又表示:如果他有儿女,他是一定会坚持让他们系好安全带的。







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